Friday, December 9, 2011

Surf, a Spelling Bee, and IST

Sunset over the Atlantic
We arrived in Mehdiya last Sunday after dark. Though I couldn’t see the ocean, I could smell it. When I went to sleep that night, I went to sleep to the sound of surf for the first time in nine months. And when I got up in the morning and looked out my window I saw a broad beach, a long breakwater reaching out into the ocean, and what looked like a dredge working at the mouth of the channel. It reminded so much of Grand Haven and my home on Lake Michigan.
Walking the beach with a friend, Adam, during
lunch break
The fifty-two remaining volunteers of the 60 who started with me (eight have ETd – early terminated – for personal or medical reasons) all converged on Mehdiya, a beach town a little north of Rabat. The occasion was IST (In-service Training), held six months after swearing in for each staj. On our first day, we had another LPI (Language Proficiency Interview). I did all right, moving up one notch to Intermediate Mid. At least I’m moving in the right direction! The next day, we shared our experiences so far and our plans for the next phase of our service. That was followed by a couple of days of workshops on grant-writing and teaching ESL (English as a Second Language).
I feel lucky. Many PCVs are still “integrating,” but I have plenty of work with my three days a week teaching in the elementary schools, plus work at the sbitar, middle school health club, and with the women’s association I’m helping get started.
Going through the rules prior to the start of the
IST Spelling Bee
I’m also working on a new project – Spelling Bee Morocco – that I hope will eventually create a national spelling bee for Moroccan students. I used the gathering at IST to present the idea to my fellow PCVs, and we held a late-night Spelling Bee at 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Fourteen PCVs participated and about 20 others formed an audience. Much to my surprise, very few of them had ever participated in a spelling bee back home. But they’re a bunch of smart, confident people, and they really got into it. It took eleven rounds to crown a winner. She won on “hippopotamus” and “aggraded” after the runner-up stumbled on “euphemism.”
The winner and a disconsolate runner-up
IST has ended. We’ve just had dinner. There will be a “Souk Prom” later tonight. And tomorrow morning, we’ll all head back to our sites. This is the last time all of us will be together at the same time until our COS (Close of Service) conference, a few months before we complete our Peace Corps service, so there’s a bittersweet tinge to the evening.
I spent a day in Marrakesh on my way here, and I’ll be spending a couple of days in Rabat on my way back home. I’ll tell you all about that, and some other travels I’ve taken in the last couple months, when I get back to my site next week.

Mehdiya has a beautiful wide, flat beach

Work boats entering the channel at dusk

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Challenging Question and a Rain Day

A French association is building this well at one of
my schools.

A Challenging Question
At school this week, while I was having tea with the teachers during recess, one of the teachers asked me what my goals were. I naively thought he was asking about my personal goals. Because my language is limited, I gave a simple answer – that I wanted to help people.
I had misunderstood. “But what about your organization,” he said, “will it do something to help us?”
I said, “I guess I’m the help.”
He didn’t exactly guffaw, but he did get a smile on his face. “But that’s just words,” he said, referring to my teaching, I suppose. “We already know that stuff. But will it do something to help us?”
“You mean money?” I asked.
Rain shrouds the Dades Valley today
He nodded, then proceeded to tell me that a French association had dug a new well for the school and that another French association had planted some olive trees.
This was my first personal encounter with such a direct “show-me-the-money” attitude. I have some thoughts about it, but I’m curious to know what yours are and how you would respond to such a situation. I may be opening a can of worms by soliciting your opinions, but I’d really like to know.
A Rain Day...
Water cascades down a path we
usually walk.

I woke this morning before my alarm to the sound of rain spattering in the courtyard and pattering on the roof. I got up and went through my usual morning routines, then got ready for school. When I went outside I saw puddles standing in my front yard - a first for puddles there. When I rode down the narrow path between buildings and turned the corner I was astonished to see a torrent of red water rushing down the wadi below my house. I’d never seen water in it before. I pedaled on along paths that were fairly slick with mud and filled with water in the ruts. When I got to the main road, a piste (dirt and gravel), streams of water were running down the two tracks. I was already pretty wet and pretty cold. I dearly wished for the gloves I bought at souq yesterday and promptly lost.
I began to think about how miserable I was going to be in class, cold and wet in the unheated schoolrooms, trying to be energetic and interesting to kids who were probably also cold and wet and hunched up braving the cold. But then salvation occurred, of a sort. I got to the bottom of the hill that separates my town from the neighboring village and another torrent, about ten yards wide and a couple of feet deep was rushing across the road. I’d never seen water here before either. I got off my bike and studied the terrain to see if there was a place where I might wade across. None in sight. Even if I did make it across, I still had another two kilometers to go. I knew there were a couple places ahead that habitually turned into streams during a rain. I figured they would be full too, and decided to turn around and go home.
The road was flooded and there was no good place to
ford the stream
There’s no phone at the school and I didn’t have any of the teachers’ cell phone numbers. I felt bad that I would just not be showing up, but I hoped the teachers would figure out what had happened. Shortly after I got home, Rachid and Fatima, one of my host brothers and sisters, knocked on my door. They came in, shoulders hunched, muttering “asmid” (cold) and “tagut” (rain). While we warmed ourselves over glasses of tea I told them I hadn’t gone to school because of the rain.
“Oh, there’s no school today,” they said, “not with a rain like this.”
In Michigan, we get snow days off when the snow makes it impossible or dangerous to go to school. I never imagined that here in Morocco I would get the equivalent – a rain day. And just as I would if it were a snow day, I’m reveling in it. At this moment, I’m bundled up in dry clothes, sitting at my desk, with a little space heater –the only non-sun-assisted heat in this large house of mine – warming my feet. I’m toasty, and the burden of guilt I was feeling for not showing up at school has been lifted from my shoulders. A rain day. Another thing to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day.
Leaves are changing color...
…and Other Stuff
It’s fall (lxrif) here, just as in the States. The weather has definitely changed. With all the precipitation of the last week, the Atlas Mountains have acquired a mantle of snow they won’t shed till next April or May. Here in the valley, the leaves have begun to change and fall. And, though it seems like just a few weeks ago that I was sleeping with just a sheet over me, I now wear longjohns and flannel pajamas to bed and I’ve discovered why people in the olden days used to wear sleeping caps and socks. Yesterday at souk, I bought a knit cap to keep my bald head warm at night and also bought two more blankets to add to the two I already had. I think – I hope - that’ll be enough.
Here’s a link to Peace Corps Postcards, a project to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. In it you’ll find some short videos of current Peace Corps Volunteers and see what wonderful, creative work they do. It includes two “post cards” from Morocco, one of a hip-hop group, another of a baseball team.
Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
The fig trees shedded their leaves in just a few days. Townspeople have
gathered them and chopped them up for animal feed. Not much goes
unused here.

Fall means pomegranates, limes, these small oranges
(about the size of a lime), and apples are in season.

My house revealed its leaks this morning - several
of them. Fortunately, like this one, they were all
over bare concrete.

The preferred method of sweeping is with this natural broom
called ifssi - not surprisingly, the word for shrub.

The Atlas Mountains are capped now in snow, probably till April or May.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Meat-Only Diet

The hair has been burned and scraped off the cow's skull,
which will later be chopped into pot-sized pieces
and used in a stew.
Sunday morning I went to my host family’s house to help slaughter a cow. Since then I haven’t had a thing to eat but meat. I’d heard stories about what a rough week this is for vegetarians (not that I am one), but I had no idea.

We killed the cow at 9:30. By noon, we were eating it as shish kabobs. An hour and a half later, we had lunch of stewed meat and juices. For dinner that night we again had a meat-only duaz with liver and beef shish kabobs as appetizers. And all week long, whenever I’ve visited people, I’ve been served shish kabobs with tea rather than the usual peanuts and cookies or bread. Not until Wednesday evening, when I had dinner at another friend’s house, did I even see a vegetable – a little bit of carrot and a few chunks of turnip in a large plate of meat.
It was not a big cow, but it's still a lot of animal. All parts
of the animal are eaten, including the innards, head, and feet.
By “rough week,” I mean the week of Eid Akhatar (big feast), Eid Kbir in Arabic, also sometimes called Eid Al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice). It commemorates Abraham’s sparing of his son and sacrificing a ram instead. After Ramadan, it’s probably the most important festival on the Muslim calendar. It takes place 70 days after the end of Ramadan, which was Monday. By tradition on that day the male head of every household sacrifices an anogod (ram). Then the family spends the rest of the week eating it. Our family did that, too, on Monday, but because it is such a large family, I guess Mohammed decided to slaughter a cow as well as a sheep.
My main job was to take pictures, but here I'm helping roll
the carcass so that others can separate the skin
from the top of the cow's back.
I had no idea of the sheer effort, strength, and time it takes to skin and butcher a large animal with just knives and a hatchet (no power saws here). With the cow, we started at 9:30 and finished at noon. By “finished” I mean we’d quartered the animal. We didn’t actually finish cutting up all the meat till Wednesday morning. And the whole family was involved. As with Ramadan, there is a lot of anticipation of the festival. And while I wouldn’t say it was a party atmosphere, it certainly was a joyous one. Those who weren’t helping with the butchering were watching and talking. And when it was done, of course, we ate.

The anogod hung, first to be "undressed,"
i.e., have its skin peeled off like a sweater,
then to be "dressed," as in butchered.

Monday was similar, except that after breakfast, the men first climbed the hill outside town and took part in a prayer service. After that, we came down to the house, changed out of our good clothes, and slaughtered the ram. And then we had shishkabobs and a lunch of meat.
I’ve talked about meat, but the festival is much more than that. It’s really about gratitude and thankfulness and the bonds of family, friendship, and community. It’s kind of like our Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one. Families draw together. The men who work at jobs in one of the big cities, or even abroad, come home, and there’s lots of visiting among neighbors, friends, and relatives. There was a steady stream of people to my family’s house on Monday, and on Tuesday and Wednesday I spent a good deal of time making the rounds myself.

Shishkabobs with fresh herbs and spices have been a staple
of the Leid diet.

I’m not quite sure what marks the end of Leid – maybe when the sheep is eaten up? – but I’ve begun to dream of vegetables.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Have a Dagger

The silver dagger at the top and steel dagger in the middle are by
Mohammed. The leather-wrapped dagger is by Houcine.
They range from 16" to 18" long.

Mohammed at work in Shop #34 of the
dagger makers' cooperative in Kalaa,
a space he shares with Houcine.
Tok, tok, tok is the characteristic sound of my village. Heard from morning till night, it comes from the workshops of the dagger-makers all over town. Tok, tok, tok…tok, tok, tok
The village I live in is the center of dagger-making in Morocco. It just so happens that my host father is the patriarch of dagger-makers in the town. And all of his sons – my host brothers – are dagger-makers, too. So it was clear to me, from my first day here, that before I left I would buy a dagger from my family as a memento. As it turns out, I haven’t been able to stop at one. I now have three.

Two were made by my eldest brother, Mohammed, who is regarded as the top craftsman in the region. The other is by another of my brothers, Houcine, who’s right up there with him. My camera and photographic ability don’t do it justice, but the craftsmanship is amazing. I love to watch the dagger-makers as they sit at their anvils making perfect circles, arabesques, and symmetrical patterns freehand with metal punches and tiny hammers on little sheets of metal which they will later solder onto the handle or sheath.
Houcine taps a design into a piece of steel
that will become a part of a dagger's
Of the two by Mohammed, one is made of the usual material, steel, and is entirely new. The other is rarer. It has an antique blade, about 200 years old, to which he added a new sheath and handle made of silver and brass, decorated with fine, traditional designs. The dagger by Houcine is wrapped in alternating bands of leather and metal, a technique unique to him. This was his first piece made this way, though he has since made several more daggers and some letter openers and pens using the technique.
Some of my notes on dagger terminology.

The reverse side of the silver dagger.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


In my last post I promised to tell you about my work, and I will, but first a comment about the meaning of “work.”

At the top of the column on the left are Peace Corps’ three goals. None is more important than the other. So when I’m doing something that furthers global understanding (Goals 2 or 3), I’m working. When I’m having tea at someone’s house, I’m working. When I go to the hanut to buy bread, I’m working. When I joke around with some of the neighborhood kids, I’m working. When I go for a run, I’m working. What a job!
What I said about Goals 2 and 3 notwithstanding, like most Americans I tend to think of work as something I can see or can count. So, to answer the whispered question - “But what does he actually do?” - here’s my Goal 1 work:
Primary Project
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we’re assigned a specific kind of work, which is called our Primary Project. I have an official connection to the local clinic and the nurse there is my “counterpart” – not a supervisor exactly, but a host country national to whom I’m somewhat accountable. We ‘re encouraged to seek out any appropriate ways to pursue our assignment. This is what I’m doing right now to pursue my primary project as a Rural Health Educator:

The equip-mobile in front of the sbitar.

·         Sbitar: I go to the sbitar (clinic) every Wednesday morning. That is well-baby day, so there’s lots of traffic. Probably about 50 women came through yesterday with their infants and toddlers to get shots, etc. Since I cannot give shots, I sit in the waiting room and talk to the women and children. I bring crayons and coloring pages with health themes to entertain the kids and do some stealth education. I hope to use the familiarity and trust I gain to engage in more formalized health education at the sbitar in the future.
·         Equipe-mobile: Last Monday, I went with the equipe-mobile, a mobile clinic, that goes to outlying douars (villages). We made three stops - at a mosque and two elementary schools. The nurse gave shots and other medication. We also recorded the weight and height of the first graders and gave them a very basic vision test. The equipe-mobile goes out every three months.

The middle school where I will work with the Health Club

·         Elementary schools: Beginning next week, I will be teaching in the three local madrassas (elementary schools) three days a week, six classes each day, 515 students. My lessons will be short – 15 to 20 minutes.
·         Lesson plans: The first week, I will tell them about myself and the Peace Corps. The second week, we (the teacher and I) will administer a survey on handwashing and toothbrushing habits. The third week, I will begin a unit on handwashing. Handwashing and Toothbrushing will make up the units for the fall semester.
·         Health Club: A health club is mandated for all middle schools and high schools in Morocco. Every other Tuesday, I will work with the health club at the local middle school. The science teacher is the advisor and the English teacher is also involved. My first units with the middle schools will be on handwashing and toothbrushing, too.
My office. That's a Morocco map on the wall. I've started
marking my travels on it.
·         Handwashing and Toothbrushing: Changes in handwashing and toothbrushing behaviors would provide the most significant improvement of overall health of anything else that could be done in this country. There is no culture of toothbrushing, which is apparent immediately, especially in small towns. People do wash their hands, but not always at the right time, and seldom with soap. There is no clear understanding of germs and the vectors of disease transmission. In this culture where people eat with their hands and do a lot of handshaking, that’s especially significant.
·         Teach. Did I Say Teach? Anyone who’s ever spoken in front of a group for 15-20 minutes knows how long that can be. And to do it in a foreign language? No matter that they’re between six and 12 years old. The big problem is that I can prepare what I want to say, but I can’t really prepare for what they’re going to say. And then when I go to the middle school and face those teenagers…that’s stress of a whole ‘nother order.
In addition to our Primary Projects, we PCVs are encouraged to do secondary projects as well. We’re supposed to discover these out of our experience in and knowledge of the community.
Secondary Projects
A topographical map of the Kalaa area.
I use it to learn more about where I live. It's
also helpful with the Road Association.
The green areas are where you'd see greenery
in the countryside. All the rest is red rock
and stony soil.
·         I’ve met with six different associations and may eventually do work with all of them. At the moment, work is continuing with two – a Road Association and a new Women’s Association.
·         Road Association: this is a group made up of 32 local communities that want to improve the road on our side of the river and the connecting link to Kalaa. My role is to help them find an ear in the royal government and to prepare their proposal. We’ve met 4 times.
·         Women’s Association: This project occupies a lot of my time and energy and it's very rewarding. It is a start-up that grew out of a comment a woman made to us PCVs way back in my pre-service training. Once I was assigned here permanently in June, I went back to her and asked her if she was serious. She said, yes, and we’ve gone on from there. Though still not formally organized, it has taken a number of significant steps already, including electing an interim board, conducting a survey of skills and interests to which 118 women have so far responded, holding several general meetings attended by from 60 to 125 women, and organizing literacy classes. The survey revealed great interest in literacy and in work other than the field and housework that forms the bulk of their days. My job is to teach them how to run and be members of an organization (they’ve never done this kind of thing before), to help them get legally organized, and to help them find resources for their training and other needs.
·         The Battle Against Illiteracy: Of the women in the Women’s Association, a majority have never attended even a year of school. 75% of them are illiterate, even though many speak three languages – Tamazight, Arabic, and French. We’ve had 85 women sign up for literacy classes and just this week got funding for them, so they’ll begin in about two weeks!
·         Handicraft Skills: The Women’s Association will also be providing classes in various handicrafts and try to develop a way to sell them, too, perhaps by forming a co-op. I’ve been making connections with PCVs who work with artisans coops to see about arranging workshops and meetings where our women can learn organizing and marketing information.

I bought a white board to use with my own classes and to
practice writing Arabic script on. It's a phonetic script and
what you see there was my attempt to write the names
 of the officers of the Women's Association. I didn't get a
single one of them exactly right. Very humbling.

·         Before Ramadan I taught English to a small group of women. We met three times a week for an hour. I also tutored a few middle school school students during the month of July. Both groups were suspended during Ramadan.
·         Now, especially with the progress the women’s association has made, two different groups are asking me to teach English – a group of men and a group of women. The men have a business motivation for wanting to learn, since, as dagger-makers, a lot of their customers are tourists. The women just seem to want to know English. These classes will begin in a few weeks, after I’ve gotten started with my elementary and middle school teaching.
So that’s my work for now. It’s more than I feel comfortable with, but Peace Corps tells us to line up lots of work because not everything planned actually pans out. If it’s too much, I’ll make a change. I’ll update you on it as the year progresses. And maybe cry for help.

Monday, October 10, 2011

An Eventful Day

Last Wednesday, October 5, 2011
6:00 am  The alarm on my iPod goes off. I hit the snooze button twice before I get up. I really like my Moroccan bed.
6:18        I get up, heat some water for coffee. Wash my face and brush my teeth (I took a shower – bucket shower – and shaved last night after my run). Have breakfast of bread with jam, corn flakes and milk, and coffee. Read at the kitchen table while eating.
7:00        Go online, check and answer email. Scan the NY Times.

In the space of about 10 minutes, the river went from a
slow-moving stream about 10 meters wide to...

7:45        Get my pack ready. Ride my bike to my landlord’s house.
8:00        My landlord insists I have breakfast with him, so I have a second breakfast of soup, dates, and coffee. We talk about a problem I’m having with my electricity. I share electricity with a neighbor. We agreed on a price before I moved in, but now he wants more. My landlord and I agree on what our approach should be, but it’s not clear yet whether my neighbor will agree.
8:30        I ride my bike to the sbitar (clinic). Wednesday is my normal day to go to the sbitar. It’s well-baby day, so lots of women come with their children for shots and check-ups.
8:45        I arrive at the sbitar. There are several women there already. I sit in the shadow of the wall with the rest of them and I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time while we wait for the adbib (nurse).
10:00     The nurse arrives on his motorbike with several plastic shopping bags of supplies. I sit in the waiting room and talk with the moms. There are a couple of older children also today. I offer them crayons and coloring pages, but they’re too shy to try them.
11:45     Hamad, the nurse, has cleared the waiting room. We have a few minutes to talk. We make arrangements for him to pick me up here at the sbitar at 8:30 tomorrow morning with the Equip-Mobile (a mobile clinic). We’ll be going to some outlying villages to give shots and do other check-ups. I’m pretty excited about this.
12:00     I leave the sbitar and ride my bike to Kalaa.

...a torrent 70 meters wide and rose about 5 feet.

12:30     There’s no mail for me at the P.O.
12:35     I stop at the paint store where I’ve bought my paint. It happens that the co-owner is the treasurer of an association that has agreed to fund a literacy class for the new women’s association that I’m working with. We’ve had so many women sign up, I ask him if they’re willing to fund a second class. He tells me he’ll ask the association, but if they won’t, maybe another will, and he introduces me to one of his employees, who is a member of a different association that does similar work. We talk for a while and exchange contact info. I leave feeling we’ll get our second class funded one way or the other.
12:50     I ride my bike to the Gendarmes station to get my carte de sejour renewed and to notify them of my travel plans (this is common procedure for foreigners in Morocco). I’m daydreaming as I ride and go past the station. When I realize it, I do a little u-turn through the weeds at the side of the road.
1:05        I get my carte de sejour renewed for another month and chat for a bit with the officer about the destination (Nkoub) for my weekend trip.
1:15        I go out to my bike and see that I have a flat back tire. I pump it up and start heading back to town. I soon notice that my front tire is going flat, too. I stop and see that now both are flat. I walk my bike back to the dagger-maker’s co-op, where two of my host brothers have their shop, and ask them if I can leave my bike there while I go to souq (market)
1:30        I walk to souq.
1:45        As I’m wandering through the stalls someone calls my name. It’s Rachida, a friend and the vice-president of our new women’s association. She asks what I’m looking for. “A mousetrap,” I say. I’ve spotted a mouse in my kitchen – a rather brazen one. I need a trap or a cat. I’m planning to try the trap first. She say’s, “Oh, no, poison,” and takes me to a stall where I buy some rat poison. She admonishes me to wash my hands after I’ve handled it. Later, I buy some cord so that I can hang the white board I bought a couple of days ago. Then we wander for a while on her business, including stopping at her father’s stall (he’s a blacksmith), where I have tea and watch him repair a 3-legged tea tray. We take off and drop off the tea tray with the owner then go to another stall where her mother sells the handcrafted goods the women of the family make. I say goodbye. On my way out of souq I buy a mousetrap.

I waded to my knees in the rising water.

2:45        Back at the dagger-makers co-op I take the tires off my bike and discover they’re riddled with thorns. One inner tube has six holes in it, the other many more than that. My host brother says, “You need new tubes!”
3:15        He and I walk into Kalaa where I buy 2 new inner tubes (23 dh, about 3 dollars, each).
4:00        I put the tires with new tubes back on my bike, stop and talk with my landlord (who also has a shop at the co-op) some more about the power problem.
4:45        I ride into Kalaa and buy some things from the supermarket, then start back to my village.

5:30        As I near the river I see a bunch of people on the ridge on the other side and wonder what’s going on. As I get to the bank, I see that the river is higher than usual, and about 10 meters of water separates the bank (and me) from the footbridge. One of my host brothers is on the bridge and spots me. He yells, “hurry,” splashes back through the water, grabs my bike. and heads back across the bridge. I wade into the water with my shoes on, carrying my plastic bags of souq and supermarket purchases. It has taken me a few seconds to comprehend the urgency in his voice, but even as we’re crossing the bridge, I can see the water rising. When we get to the other side, a sheet of brown water is gurgling over the usually dry stones. I climb the ridge and watch with the other people. In the space of about 10 minutes, the river has gone from a barely moving stream about 10 meters wide, to a torrent 70 meters wide and has risen about five feet. The bridge has been inundated. I wonder where it will end up this time, or if we’ll even see it afterwards. (As it turns out, when the water settles the next day, the bridge is still in place and repairs are easily made.)

The Moroccan version of the old standby - just like the American, except
all metal.

6:15        I go home and wash and change into clean, dry clothes. I put my purchases away. And I set my mousetrap, baited with bread soaked in oil. I’m being clever. The brazen beast has been nibbling at the top of my bottle of cooking oil. He must need fat in his diet.
7:30.      I go to dinner at a friend’s house.
9:30        I come home, and see that I’ve killed a mouse. I dispose of its body outside and rebait the trap. In the morning I will discover another tiny carcass. I hope that’s the last. I really do not want a cat.
10:00     I go to bed. I read for about half an hour by the light of my headlamp, then go to sleep in my comfy bed.
The flat tires and flash flood are unusual circumstances, but the rest of day’s events gives a pretty fair representation of the pace and content of my days. I haven’t talked about work much so far in this blog. In fact some people have said to me, “But what do you do?” I’ll talk about that in my next post.

Friday, September 30, 2011

My Blog Goes Polyglot

One of the interesting things about life here is the way conversations can range over several languages, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. English is not often one of those languages, but Tamazight, Arabic, and French definitely are.
I’m at a disadvantage. The languages I speak well, English and German, are not in the mix. I know a little French. My 50-year old high school French enables me to read at a level that actually amazes me. But I don’t speak it well at all, and my listening comprehension is like that of most beginners. French spoken at a normal rate is mainly just a blur of sounds to me. I actually speak Tam better than I speak French, though Tam spoken at a normal rate is often still just a blur of sound to me, too. Admittedly, I can understand some speakers better than others, just as some Tam speakers understand me better than others. And I don't speak Arabic at all.
But I digress…
One of the workarounds I’ve discovered recently is Google Translate. Whenever I’m going to a meeting where I have important information to impart – and I don’t have a good English speaker in attendance – I try to write my important information in advance in English. Then I pop it into Google Translate and produce versions of it in French and Arabic and print them out. It has worked amazingly well.
That success led me to add French and Arabic translations of my posts to this blog. You can see them at the en francais and  باللغة العربية tabs above.
I’ve done this, not because I have a lot of readers in French or Arabic - though I hope I will. My main reason for writing my blog is simply to have an efficient and effective way to communicate what’s happening in my life to my friends back home in the States. The blog also is a means for me to carry out Peace Corps’ Goal 3: To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.
But there’s also Peace Corps Goal 2: To promote a better understanding of American culture and people on the part of the peoples served. Now that I’m getting to know more Moroccans, some of whom do have computers and spend some time on the Internet, I thought it would be good to provide access to them to what I’m saying about my Peace Corps experience in Morocco. In that way, maybe my blog can help me address Goal 2 as well.
Unfortunately, there’s no tab for Tamazight. Google Translate does not support Tamazight. And my own Tam is just not strong enough, or fast enough, for me to be able to translate my own blogs. Yanwas incha’allah (someday, God willing).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Six Months in Morocco

I just got back from Ouarzazate where I spent eight days in training and meetings. While I was there, my six-month anniversary in-country slipped past.

Six months is an important anniversary because…well, I’m not really sure why, but it seems like it should be. It’s such a tidy chunk of time – six months, half a year, a quarter of my Peace Corps commitment. During pre-service training, staff gave us a session on the emotional cycles of PCVs. Six months was typically a low point: you’re still having difficulty with the language, you haven’t done much tangible work yet, you’re isolated in a village where you don’t really have any close Moroccan friends and you’re separated from family and English-speaking friends by hours of travel or thousands of miles.

The footpath to Kalaa, with donkey
All those are true for me - check, check, check - though I can’t really say I’m feeling sad or useless (a word I heard more than once from staj-mates in Oz). However, I do sometimes wonder if I’m having any impact or how effective I am or ever can be. And I still have trouble articulating why I’m here – in English, let alone Tamazight!

And then this morning, I walked to Kalaa to check my mail and found a small package from a friend, Jessica, an artist who runs Springtide Press in Tacoma, Washington. It was a packet of her cards to help me with my color project (and state of mind, too, I'm sure). On top was a note card that said “Your brain is a map, your heart is a compass. Now find your way.” It wasn't exactly the meaning, but the the reassurance, that settled my spirits. And it complemented so well the motto I adopted shortly before entering the Peace Corps: “Proceed as the way opens.”

I went off to do my other errands.

I searched high and low for a pillow to fit the case that came with my hammock. Eventually, I found myself in a narrow shop that sold mattresses and bedding. At the back sat a young man behind a sewing machine – Hafid. Like all the others, he shook his head: No, he did not have one. “But I could make one for you,” he said. He showed me the materials he would use. “Fine,” I said, “When?” Right now. So while I watched, in about five minutes, he made a perfect, 60 cm square, soft pillow (not hard and heavy like most Moroccan pillows). I gave him the 40 dirhams ($5), we exchanged names and mtshrfin (pleased to meet you), and I went on my way

Next I went to a fabric shop. There’s a tailor there – Mohammed, a dwarf who stands about four feet high, with a hunchback and a club foot, and the sweetest smile you’ll ever see. I chat with him for a bit whenever I pass the shop. I thought it was his shop, but it turns out he’s hired help. Anyway, from the owner, I bought two pieces of fabric to help keep the dust and sand out of my book case and clothes chest. I asked Mohammed if he could hem the green one for me, which had unfinished edges. He was in the midst of sewing fringe on meters of black lace, a material women in my region traditionally wear slung over their shoulders. He interrupted what he was doing, threaded some green thread into his old Singer treadle sewing machine, and hemmed my piece of cloth. When I asked how much, he waved it off – walu (nothing) – he said with his sweet smile.

They're building a new bridge over the river...
When I went to the transit stop to catch a ride back to my town, the driver, who has been known to drop me far from my usual stop just because it happened to be inconvenient for him to go that far that day, told me he would wait while I ran to the city market to buy some olives. And he did!

In the afternoon, I met with some men who’ve formed an association to improve the road. Last time I was in Rabat, I’d bought a topographical map of the area and one of the Peace Corps staff members had pointed me to a couple of government agencies that fund this sort of high-cost work. The four of us spent about three hours checking the agencies’ websites, pouring over the map, brainstorming about the reasons our project should be funded – creating our “story” – and agreed to meet Sunday morning to drive the whole route to make notes and take pictures.

...but the road, itself, is little more than a rough 2-track.
It’s my running day (I run about 45 minutes every other day). About 6:00, when I took off, there was a light rain, and the wind was in my face. Off to my right, I could see the rain hanging from the clouds in brown wisps and in the distance a band of clear sky and an orange flat sun. Dusk is a time when there are many people on the road. When I first started running here, I was often met with jeers from teenagers and skeptical, or even hostile looks from adults. But now they know me. Little kids will run with me for 100 meters or so, teenagers nod in recognition, adults give me a thumbs up. Some people call me by name. Every now and then, someone will ask me to stop for tea, an invitation I have yet to accept – though some day I expect the time will be right.

When I got back to my house, it was nearly dark, with just a thin band of light silhouetting the Atlas Mountains and the electric lights of Kalaa floating in the pool of black in the middle ground. Fatima, one of my host sisters, and Sulayman, my six-year old host nephew, were at my door. I hadn’t seen him since I’d gotten back from Oz. He wanted to come in, but I told him I had to take a shower and would see him at dinner, which Fatima had just invited me to. When I got there an hour later, he had already fallen asleep. After dinner, his parents, Mohammed and Sadiya, and I left the house at the same time. Sulayman’s infant brother Ayman was in a sling on Sadiya’s back, Sulayman was walking in a sleepy stumble, clinging to the folds of his mother’s caftan. At the corner, where we separated to go our own ways, Sadiya said, “Say goodnight to Jamal.” Sulayman, rousing himself, twisted his skinny body this way and that until he spotted me in the dark, then blew me a kiss.

So, six months in-country. A landmark.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What I’m Doing to My House

Since my house is so big that I could never really furnish it on my Peace Corps allowances, I decided instead to furnish it with color. I was inspired by the Jardin Majorelle. I haven’t yet actually visited the place, but it’s in the guide books and I definitely intend to when I get a chance to spend a few days in Marrakesh. For those of you not up on the sight-worthy places of Morocco, the Jardin Majorelle is a place built by the painter Jacques Majorelle and subsequently bought and restored by the French designer Yves St. Laurent. It’s now a public museum and garden. It’s famous for Majorelle’s use of intense colors, especially blues, greens, reds and yellows.

My palette is different – orange, green, violet. No slavish imitation for me!. And not the comprehensive painting of the Majorelle, either. I’ve just finished painting my doors. I’ve also found a carpenter/cabinet maker who is making some plain wooden furniture for me at a good price – a couple of benches, a printer stand, a bookcase, and a case for my clothes. I’m also painting those.

The first test of my decoration – quite different from the colors used by my townspeople – came yesterday, when I hosted a meeting of a fledgling women’s association I’ve been working with. About 125 women attended. As the women came into the house, I saw a bunch of wide eyes and occasional laughter. But it was the laughter of delight, not mockery. There’s a gesture used here – fingers and thumb curled into a very loose fist, then flicked outward two or three times toward something or someone – which means beautiful, easy on the eyes, eye candy. Several women told me by gesture my house was eye candy.

After my big event yesterday, I took the day off today and went to Kalaa and found that a package from America had arrived. It contained, among many other treasured things, a brightly colored hammock! It not only helps carry through my project of decoration by color, but has already become my favorite place to read.

To see what my house looked like before the paint job, see my post “My New House” from June 27.

Can you tell I’m having fun?

Not OSHA approved.
Hey, maybe this is why we have an OSHA!
I can finally get all my books off the floor!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ramadan Ends

Decked out
Today was Le’id Amzzan (or Le’id Lftur, or, in my town, just Le’id). It’s the day following Ramadan when everyone celebrates the ending of the fast. It’s one of the major holidays in Morocco, and in order to celebrate it appropriately, I went to the souq yesterday with my host father and bought new clothes – a tajlabit (jellaba), ikurbin (pointy-toed slipper-shoes), and a tarbut (woven skull cap) – all in white. Basically, dress clothes. In our town, to finish off the ensemble, you also wear a dagger. Since I own one, a rather beautiful one, I was all set.

Decked out in my new duds, I went to my host family’s house a little after 7:00 and had breakfast in the morning for the first time in a month. Actually, it seemed plain, though filling – just coffee, bread with olive oil, and dates – after the many-course feasts that evening lftur accustomed me to during Ramadan.

In my town, all of the men of the village gather in the morning for a prayer service at the top of a high hill just outside of town. About 8:45, Mohammed, my host father, signaled it was time to go. I asked one of my host sisters to take a picture of us in our finery. Wouldn’t you know it, the battery in my camera died. Not only would I not get a picture of us, I wouldn’t be able to get pictures of any of the proceedings! I did get some pictures later in the day. You’ll just have to imagine them peopled.

The shatu supplies water to the village
We climbed to the top of the hill, where the shatu (the water tank and pumping station that supplies tap water to the town) is. I’d never been up here before. The view was extraordinary. Along the way, we passed the cemetery. Since the graves were basically neat mounds of dirt and stones, some marked with tombstones, some with a flat, incised concrete, others with just an arrangement of rocks, I didn't realize it was anything other than the stony hillside till we were abreast of it. At the top of the hill, several hundred men, most of them in white tajlabits, were sitting on their prayer rugs chatting and waiting. At 9:00, the imam turned and faced east. All the rest followed suit, and they began their prayers.

The town cemetery
Behind them, I stood in the shadow of the shatu with a great view down the hill.  I could still see a stream of men coming up the hill, some breaking into a trot as they realized the prayers had begun.

I was standing with about 50 boys - it was all males here - who were cheerfully and loudly oblivious to the sacred proceedings going on on the other side of the chateau. One of the boys sold chick peas dusted with cumin for half a dirham. He served them up in cones made of sheets torn from one of his old school notebooks, the pages covered with the red, green, blue and black script – some sort of color-coding – that Moroccan teachers seem to require of their students. Other kids were sliding down the steel pipe that feeds water to the community. Occasionally a short scuffle – some pushing or kicking – broke out as the physical play of young boys went too far.

After about ten minutes, the prayer ended and all the men turned around and faced west. The imam gave a sermon, I guess, intoning from a prepared script for about 15 minutes. As the time wore on, some men pulled up the hoods of their tajlabits and others draped their prayer rugs over their heads to protect them from the sun. When the sermon was over they all stood up and formed a big U-shaped line. Beginning with the imam, the line started curling back on itself, with each man greeting every other man who was there. Hussain, a friend of mine from the village, saw me standing by the chateau and called me over. I reminded him that I had not taken part in the prayer or the service. "Mashi mushkil" (doesn’t matter), he said, pulling me into the greeting line. That process took longer than the whole previous service. In the meantime, someone had brought five or six large serving plates piled with couscous and set them on the ground. As we finished going through the line, many men went to the plates and took a handful of the couscous, symbolically breaking the fast, though a few seemed to linger there, making a meal of it.
The annual prayer service for le'id takes place on this
cleared ground with a concrete seat and platform for the imam

About 10:30, Mohammed and I, along with my nephew Sulayman and his dad, walked back to the family’s house, where the women had prepared tea and a spread of nuts and dates and cookies. For the rest of the morning and on into mid-afternoon, family, neighbors, and friends streamed through the house as they made the rounds of the village wishing everyone mbruk le’id – congratulations on the feast of breaking the fast.

So Ramadan is over. I managed to keep the fast the whole time, even while traveling, and I read the Qur’an in its entirety, my two goals for the period. I had several tough days, but I learned to schedule my physical activity so that it didn’t really put me at risk. I found that adapting to not eating for long stretches was not too difficult, but that it never got easy to go without water. And, as I’ve said before, it messed with my sleep. I’ll be curious to see: Will I return to my old pattern of falling asleep in seconds and sleeping straight through for seven hours, or will I be plagued with insomnia and fitful nights as I have been this month? Only time will tell.
From the hill there's a tremendous view of the town, the
green fields of the Dades Valley, Kalaa,and the
Atlas Mountains